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False Advertising: Is the Discipline of International Relations Truly "International?"


By Feb 27, 2017

If one were to ask a first-year student at McGill about the course material in an introductory international relations class, one can be fairly certain that this student’s response would include, “realism, democratic peace theory, liberalism, and sovereignty,” focusing primarily on the works of Machiavelli, Waltz, Moravcsik, and Weber, among the other “old white men” of traditional political thought. It is precisely this baseline phenomenon, and the subsequent assumption that the work of such thinkers constitutes the “basics” of international relations theory, that leads critics to assert that international relations (IR), as a discipline, is fundamentally western-centric. By analyzing and interpreting the perspectives of progressive international relations thinkers, as well as those originating in the developing world, on international relations theory and its many facets, we can better understand the vast extent to which Western narratives and norms dominate this seemingly internationally-focused discipline. In applying these critical perspectives to two cases, namely the situations in Guinea-Bissau and Lesotho, it is clear that international relations theory is “falsely advertised,” in the sense that it is not “truly global” in its applicability.  

International Relations theory’s intrinsic Western-centrism can be observed most evidently in its misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the African continent. Stephanie Neuman asserts that “traditional IR theory, and the models of the international system it uses, when taken to the African continent, fail to explain much about the continent’s international relations,” and therefore do not help us understand the critical problems and issues central to the political situations in many African states. This misapplication of IR theory, due to its roots in Western history and culture, means that, as she puts it, “the dominant IR theories [are] not adequate in explaining what was actually happening on the African continent.” When Africa is analyzed through a heavily Western-influenced lens, scholars and students are inclined to squeeze an African reality into European models. The clear misfit of the latter has led to the creation of concepts such as “failed states” that marginalize and alienate the African continent from “mainstream” Western ideals of democracy and state behaviour. As Dunn writes in Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory, Africa has become “the subordinated ‘other’ to the western ‘self,’” which Ayoob expands upon to the extent that “both neorealism and neoliberalism share a neocolonial epistemology that privileges the global north over the global South,” hence exposing IR theory’s disregard for geographical and cultural contexts that do not fit the traditional, normative Western model. Dunn recapitulates this divergence in an effective manner in proclaiming that “Africa’s pseudo absence in IR theory is exacerbated by the continued privileging of concepts that help maintain that invisibility. Basic concepts that are central to traditional IR – anarchy, sovereignty, the state... become problematic, if not highly dubious, when applied to Africa.” Overall, Dunn stresses that most IR scholars simply continue to ignore the continent rather than use African experiences to revise their theories, which would make IR theory both more inclusive and representative of the current international system of states.

When Africa is analyzed through a heavily Western-influenced lens, scholars and students are inclined to squeeze an African reality into European models. The clear misfit of the latter has led to the creation of concepts such as “failed states” that marginalize and alienate the African continent from “mainstream” Western ideals of democracy and state behaviour.

The Western-centrism of IR theory can be observed in a comprehensive fashion through the work of Amilcar Cabral and his role in Guinea-Bissau’s struggle for independence. To this day, students are made aware of the West’s fixation on ideology, during the Third Wave of Democratization, and its larger impact on the Cold War. Ideology plays a crucial role in understanding these events from an IR theory perspective, as scholars are quick to associate an ideology, be it communism or western liberal democracy, to these movements. Cabral’s take on the concept of “ideology,” however, was unique because he saw ideology solely as a means to attain national liberation, and not an end in itself. Cabral believed that “to have ideology does not necessarily mean that you are a communist, socialist, or something like this. To have ideology is to know what you want in your own condition.” In professing this point of view, Cabral not only exposes the West’s tendency to categorize and compartmentalize events within set, classical ideologies, but also highlights that this aspect of traditional IR theory deems itself inapplicable to cases such as that of Guinea-Bissau’s independence movement. Thus, Cabral’s unconventional assessment of the true meaning of “ideology” exposes that traditional IR theory and its components cannot accurately depict and define every international situation. Moreover, Cabral’s pragmatic approach to defining his ideological stance adds to our conceptual understanding of IR theory’s global inapplicability. Instead of conforming solely to realism or Marxism as per the West’s conditioned expectations, Cabral was an African nationalist and humanist with a Marxist mindset in terms of understanding international economic history. Contrary to the West’s perception of African revolutionaries, Cabral pursued an end to imperial exploitation with pragmatism and a prioritization of social justice and human rights for his people. In defining and theorizing his own “hybrid” ideology, which boasted a compromise of realism, Marxism, and pragmatism, Cabral’s work demonstrates the extent to which IR scholars and students abide by narrow ideological understandings with almost no room for overlap or compromise. Cabral’s “realism” highlights once again traditional Western IR theory’s inability to explain non-Western situations, such as that of Guinea-Bissau, on both a theoretical and ideological level due to its narrow scope, rendering it inapplicable on a global scale.

An additional case study that demonstrates the incongruity between traditional Western IR theory and the reality of international relations is that of “development” and bureaucratic power in Lesotho. As the West seeks to proliferate its notions of democracy and economic development, James Ferguson discusses the inaccuracy of the West’s view of Africa and the incompatibility of Western models with most Global South state situations.  Since its independence, Lesotho has been subject to massive and persistent internationalist intervention with “development” objectives, stemming from Western development and IR theories that dictate a given module for economic development with the goal of achieving economic interdependence and a market-based economy. This phenomenon materialized itself in Lesotho when seventy-two international agencies decided to “move the money” they had been charged with spending on developing countries to “standardized development packages,” this portrayed these developing states in terms that made them “suitable targets for such packages.” It is no surprise then, as Ferguson reports, that the country profiles on which these international organizations based their interventions often entirely misrepresented the economic and social realities of the states they sought to aid in their development efforts. The World Bank made one such report in 1975, in which it encapsulates an image of Lesotho to fit well within the institutional criteria for providing development aid. The passage describes Lesotho to be “virtually untouched by modern economic development... basically a traditional subsistence peasant society. At independence, there was no economic infrastructure to speak of.” These claims, according to Ferguson’s research, were both incorrect and outlandish. Lesotho has not only been far from a “subsistence” society since the mid-1800s, having been a producer of wheat, Kaffir corn, wool, and cattle for the South African market, but its agricultural population has also been active in local and regional markets, selling surpluses of crops and livestock. Furthermore, it was far from being “untouched” by modern development, for colonial rule had founded a modern administration, airports, infrastructure, and markets for Western commodities prior to independence. This rearrangement of reality reflects the West’s imperfect understanding of the current situation in many developing countries, and explains why Western models for development cannot be identically applied to every scenario in the Global South. Ferguson elaborates upon the notion of imposing Western models on the developing world when he addresses the ever-present “what should they do?” question. When Western “developers” speak of the collective “they,” they are often referring to the governments present in developing states, in the context of what these governments should be doing for their people and for development. However, what Ferguson asserts is that this model of representation on behalf of the government is a Western ideal that is not the reality in much of the developing world. In Lesotho, the government is “not identical with the people who live in Lesotho, nor is it in any of the established senses ‘representative’ of that collectivity. As in most [developing] countries, the government is a relatively small clique with narrow interests.” Ferguson drives this point home in asserting that “there is little point in asking what such entrenched and often extractive elites should do to empower the poor.” In depicting the vast difference between the role of the government based on Western ideals within IR theory, Ferguson demonstrates that these ideals are by no means universal, and ultimately that the West cannot apply traditional theories of development or governance to every Global South case in hopes of achieving socioeconomic development, thus proving that these theories and practices are not universally applicable.

In defining and theorizing his own “hybrid” ideology, which boasted a compromise of realism, Marxism, and pragmatism, Cabral’s work demonstrates the extent to which IR scholars and students abide by narrow ideological understandings with almost no room for overlap or compromise.

However, certain theorists do argue that IR theory does not in fact possess a Western bias that hinders its global applicability. William Brown mounts a qualified defense of the international applicability of IR theory in his argument that with “a modified understanding of the units of the international system, and of the structure of relations between them, the extent of African difference could be reduced from a difference of kind, as one side or other of a dichotomy, to a matter of degree.” Brown goes on to suggest that in dismissing Western state-based analyses of African cases, one would not have many objections “other than to point out that other case studies, including European and North American ones, could also have been used.” Ultimately, despite Brown’s critique of state-centrism, in uncovering and interpreting the diverse characteristics of Western dominance in the politics of the developing world, one can conclude that classical IR theory is, in fact, a fundamentally “Western” discipline, and therefore cannot be considered truly global in its applicability.

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